Western Short Story
The sun was setting over the rugged, arid landscape of far west Texas. Young Texas Ranger Pete Natowich pulled his horse to a halt, not quite sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him. “Trooper, unless I’m seein’ things, that’s a lake just ahead, off to the left. Who’d ever have thought we’d find this much water around here? We’re gonna spend the night here, boy. Can’t make Rankin until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest anyway.”
Pete put his big bay gelding, with the half-crescent star and strip on his face, into a trot. Sensing water and rest ahead, Trooper responded eagerly. Both man and horse were tired, having been on the trail from Austin for several long, hard days. Pete had been a Ranger for little more than a year. He was barely over eighteen years old, lean, blue-eyed and blonde-haired. This was his first solo assignment, an assignment which would have been handed to one of the more experienced Rangers, if any had been available. The long ride had taken its toll.
A half-hour later, the Ranger reined in at the edge of a large, deep pond.
“Sure enough Troop, it is a lake. Well, a good-sized pond, anyway,” Pete stated. “I’m gonna take a nice, cool bath tonight, and so are you, horse. It’s time we get some of this dust off our hides.”
Pete swung from the saddle, then stripped it and the blanket from his horse’s back. Once that was done, he pulled off his boots and socks, then peeled off his sweat-sticky shirt. He placed that on the ground, then removed his Stetson and bandanna, laying them alongside the shirt. Finally, he unbuckled his gunbelt, leaving it on top of the saddle. He leapt onto Trooper’s bare back and urged the Morgan-Quarter cross into the water.
For half-an hour, Pete swam the muscular bay back and forth across the pond, letting the gelding put his muzzle into the water and snort, allowing him to paw and splash the cool, refreshing liquid. Once he was satisfied the horse had fully cooled off, he rode out of the pond, then took his lariat and picketed Trooper in a patch of lush grass bordering the waterhole.
“You just take it easy and graze a spell, Trooper,” Pete told the horse, “I’m gonna take my bath, then swim a bit more.” While his horse fell to eagerly cropping the grass, the young Ranger dug a bar of yellow soap from his saddlebags and started back to the water. He intended to scrub off ten days worth of trail grime and sweat.
Pete had started to unhitch his belt and remove his levis when a slight sound warned him of danger. Trooper had stopped grazing, and had lifted his head, ears pricked sharply forward. Pete started to turn. A sharp voice stopped him in his track.
“Don’t move, mister!”
“Get your hands up, and turn around, real slow,” the voice ordered.
Pete complied. He raised his hands shoulder high, then turned and stared into the dark, malevolent eyes of a heavy-set, bearded man about five years older than himself. He held a Colt pointed straight at Pete’s belly.
“I don’t have much worth takin’, if you’re intendin’ to rob me,” Pete said.
“That fine bay horse alone makes killin’ you worth it,” the gunman retorted. He thumbed back the hammer of his pistol.
Pete’s stomach muscles tightened. His own Colt was out of reach, in the gunbelt lying across his saddle. The Ranger was helpless as he faced the man who clearly intended to kill him. He braced himself for the impact of hot lead tearing through his guts.
The hammer clicked in place, and the gunman tightened his finger on the trigger. Just as he fired, Pete, in desperation, threw himself backwards into the water. The bullet pierced the air where his chest had just been. Pete dove under the pond’s surface while the gunman fired wildly, his bullets searching out his victim.
Pete stuck his head above water to gasp a quick breath. A bullet whined past his left ear, a second slug just missing as he plunged under the water again.
The young Ranger swam underwater for several yards, until his bursting lungs forced him to surface once again. Instantly, a bullet burned the top of his left shoulder. The gunman pulled the trigger again. The hammer of his sixgun clicked on an empty chamber.
Sensing his chance, Pete lunged from the pond, leaping at his assailant in a headlong tackle. His head smashed into the gunman’s belly, knocking him back, grunting as air was forced from his lungs. The outlaw’s gun dropped from his hand. Pete’s momentum carried both men to the ground. They rolled several times, before scrambling to their feet.
The gunman slammed his right fist to the point of Pete’s chin, at the same time driving his left low into the Ranger’s gut, catching Pete between his bellybutton and belt buckle. Simultaneously, Pete smashed one fist to the gunman’s jaw, the other to the side of the man’s head. Both men staggered from the impacts.
The gunman recovered first. He again smashed his fist into Pete’s stomach, jackknifing the Ranger, then straightening him with a blow to the mouth. He doubled Pete again with another punch in the belly, sinking his fist wrist-deep in the youngster’s gut. Pete toppled to the dirt, gasping for breath.
The gunman recovered his pistol, and quickly began reloading. Fighting the nausea which threatened to overcome him, Pete lunged for his own Colt, grabbing it just as his assailant finished reloading. Pete rolled to his knees and fired twice, both his bullets striking the renegade in his chest. The man crumpled onto his back, shuddered, gave out a long sigh, and lay unmoving.
Gasping, Pete crawled on hands and knees to the gunman, pulling the sixgun from his hand and tossing it aside. Satisfied the man was dead, Pete collapsed onto his belly, guts churning. He rolled onto his back, head spinning. After a few moments, he managed to drag himself to his feet. Pete pressed a hand to his bruised midsection, then, hunched over, stumbled to his saddle. He dug in his saddlebags for the tin of salve he always carried. He used the ointment to coat the bullet burn along his shoulder. The wound was minor, and had already nearly stopped bleeding. His injuries from the fistfight were more serious. His lips were swollen, blood still trickled from his mouth, and a lump was rising along his jaw. Stabbing pain shot through his belly every time he moved. It would take some time for his battered gut to recover from the vicious blows it had received. He gazed balefully at the body of the outlaw.
“Reckon I’d better check that hombre, to see if I can figure out who he was, and why he was so set on killin’ me,” he muttered.
Pete knelt beside the dead gunman. He went through his shirt and vest pockets, then the pockets of the man’s jeans, finding nothing of interest. He rolled the man onto his stomach, then went through his back pockets, again coming up empty. The entire contents of all the pockets were a few bills, matches, some coins, a sack of tobacco and a packet of cigarette papers.
“Mebbe there’ll be somethin’ in his saddlebags that’ll help,” Pete speculated. “His horse can’t be all that far off.”
The young Ranger whistled shrilly, and was answered by a whinny from behind a cluster of boulders.
“Least that’s one break… his horse answers a whistle,” Pete murmured. He headed for the rocks. Rounding them, he came upon a fleabitten gray, ground-hitched. The horse jerked up its head and shied at Pete’s approach.
“Easy, boy. It’s all right. Easy now,” Pete soothed the animal. He ran a hand down the gray’s shoulder. His soft voice and gentle touch calmed the anxious mount.
“There. That’s a good boy,” Pete praised. “You just stand still while I check your saddlebags.
The Ranger quickly went through the alforjas, finding the usual assortment of supplies, a spare shirt, socks, and other sundries. A folded letter in one saddlebag caught his attention. Under the light of the rising full moon, he scanned its contents, then tucked it into his hip pocket.
“Reckon you’ll have to carry your rider’s body into town, horse,” Pete told the gray. He lifted the reins and swung onto the gelding’s back, heading it to where Trooper and the outlaw’s body waited.
“Got a friend for you, Trooper,” Pete called to his horse. The big bay looked up and whinnied, then went back to his grazing. Pete dismounted, stripped the gear from the dead man’s gray, and picketed the horse near his own. He took the outlaw’s bedroll with him, dragged the body behind some rocks, and covered it with the blankets. That done, he reloaded his pistol and rebuckled his gunbelt around his waist. After pulling on socks and boots and shrugging back into his shirt, he gathered some downed wood and built a small fire. He hunkered alongside the flames to dry his soaked jeans.
Pete suddenly realized he was ravenously hungry. His only food since breaking camp that morning had been a few strips of jerky and a leftover biscuits. While he intended to resupply in Rankin, he still had enough bacon and beans left for one more meal. He retrieved those, his Arbuckles, frying pan, and coffee pot from his saddlebags. Shortly, the bacon was sizzling in the pan, coffee boiling, and the last of his beans heating.
Pete ate rapidly, lingering only briefly over his coffee. He scrubbed out the tin utensils and plate and doused the fire. He checked both horses, then rolled in his blankets. For some time he gazed up at the stars pinpricking the inky curtain of the sky, their light fading as the moon rose higher.
The young Ranger had trouble falling asleep. Despite the fact he was upwind of a steady breeze had kept him from hearing the gunman’s approach, and masked the sound or scent of his horse from Trooper, Pete was angry with himself for allowing the outlaw to sneak up on him, undetected.
“I’m lucky it’s not me lyin’ dead with a chunk of lead in my guts, rather’n that jasper,” he muttered. “I’d bet a hat none of the other Rangers would’ve let him get so close. You’re some Ranger, Natowich. Ranger, huh! You wouldn’t even make a decent town deputy.”
Still berating his carelessness, he finally drifted off to sleep.
It took some doing the next morning for Pete to bend the outlaw’s rigor mortis stiffened body, so he could drape it belly-down over the gray’s saddle, then lash it in place. Once that was accomplished, Pete mounted his own horse, and resumed his journey to Rankin. He would reach his destination sometime that afternoon.
As Pete loped along, he speculated on how to handle the reaction his arrival in Rankin would stir. A stranger, leading a horse carrying a dead man, was sure to attract more than the usual share of notice. Add in that stranger’s youthful appearance, which belied the fact he was a Texas Ranger, and he was sure to gain some unwanted attention.
“Reckon we might have a bit of trouble explainin’ this, Troop,” he spoke to his horse. “Well, no point puttin’ it off.”
He pushed Trooper to a faster pace.
It was late afternoon when Pete rode into Rankin. The town was busy with folks shopping and conducting business. A crowd soon gathered, following the young Ranger and his grisly burden. Pete ignored their shouted questions until he reined up in front of the marshal’s office, which was padlocked and dark.
A burly individual, wearing a white grocer’s apron, pushed his way through the mob.
“Hey, you! What’s goin’ on here?” he demanded.
“Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?” Pete retorted. “I’m bringin’ in a dead man.”
“You watch that mouth with me, mister,” the grocer snapped. “I’m the mayor of this town, and I’m askin’ you a question. Now who are you, and where’d you find that hombre?
“I count that as two questions. Ask ’em politely, and you might get an answer,” Pete softly replied.
“He’s got you there, Porter,” a bystander laughed. “You always did have a big mouth.”
“All right. Reckon I did come off a bit gruff,” Porter conceded. “I’m Hiram Porter. Like I said, I’m Rankin’s mayor. Sorry for spoutin’ off like I did, but with our bank bein’ robbed and the marshal killed durin’ the holdup, we’re a bit on edge. We’ve been waitin’ for a Texas Ranger to show up from Austin, but there’s been no sign of him. Instead you show up, totin’ a body.”
“Don’t fret it, Mayor,” Pete responded. “First, I found this hombre a few miles outside of town. Only he wasn’t dead when I came across him. He jumped me, then tried to kill me so he could steal my horse. I shot him instead.”
“You killed him?” Porter echoed.
“I sure did. It was him or me. He didn’t give me a choice. Now, to answer your other question, I’m the Ranger you’re waitin’ on. Texas Ranger Pete Natowich.”
“You’re a Texas Ranger?” Porter exclaimed, looking over the youthful lawman. “Hardly seems likely.”
“My papers and orders are in my pocket,” Pete answered. “I know I’m a mite young lookin’, but I’ve been a Ranger for some time now. I’ve been assigned to track down the men who robbed your bank and killed your town marshal. And I’m supposed to take care of the law in Rankin until you appoint a new marshal.”
“Dunno if a youngster can handle that job,” someone muttered.
“You want to try me and find out?” Pete challenged. “Besides, you’ve got no choice. With all the problems along the border, the Rangers are real short-handed. I’m the only man available.”
“I guess beggars can’t be choosers,” Porter conceded. “And you must be all right, if you made the grade as a Ranger. Tell you what. Besides bein’ the mayor, I run the general store and do the undertakin’ here. Take that body to my store. It’s a block down. Mebbe someone’ll recognize that jasper.”
“Okay,” Pete agreed. “Once that’s done, I’ll want the keys to the marshal’s office. Reckon I’ll be bunkin’ there a spell.”
“I’ve got those at the store,” Porter answered. He gestured to an old man, who hovered at the edge of the crowd.
“Hug Prescott here runs the livery stable. He’ll take good care of your cayuse.”
“That’s fine. Trooper here deserves the best.”
“He’ll get that from me, Ranger,” the elderly hostler spoke up. “My stable’s right next to the marshal’s office, so your bronc’ll be handy whenever you need him.”
“Gracias,” Pete replied. He backed Trooper and the dead outlaw’s horse away from the hitchrail and walked them to Porter’s Mercantile. The spectators pressed closely behind.
When they reached the store, a tall, well-dressed individual pushed his way through the crowd. He walked up to Pete.
“I just heard a dead man was brought in. You the one who found him? Any idea who he is?” he demanded of Pete, not even giving the Ranger a chance to dismount.
“I’m the one who killed him,” Pete corrected, “If it’s any business of yours, Mister. Is everybody in this town rude?”
“I’m the president of the Rankin Bank, Ebenezer Montrose. I want to know about this body. I thought perhaps he was one of the men who robbed my bank and shot down Marshal Tucker.”
“You might want to ask a bit more civilly,” Pete replied. “I don’t work for you.”
“This man’s a Texas Ranger, Ebenezer,” Porter interjected. “The dead hombre tried to kill him for his horse. As you can see, the Ranger shot straighter.”
“I apologize for being so abrupt, Ranger,” Montrose said to Pete. “It’s just that I’m anxious to find those outlaws and murderers.“
The banker had dark eyes, which seemed to Pete to glitter like a snake’s. His black hair was carefully pomaded in place, his mustache crisply trimmed. His well-tailored suit was carefully cut to fit his slim figure. Montrose held a thin, unlit cigar.
“I understand,” Pete answered. “Let’s get him off his horse and inside, then you folks can take a look at him.”
“Makes sense,” the banker agreed.
Pete dismounted, and looped Trooper’s and the outlaw’s horse’s reins around the rail. The dead man was lifted from his horse and carried into the back room of the store. He was laid out on the floor.
“He doesn’t look familiar to me,” Porter observed. “Anyone of you ever seen this man?”
His question was met with a murmur of negatives.
“Those robbers were masked, so he could’ve been one of ’em,” Jake Butler, the saloonkeeper, noted.
“Could’ve been, but I’ve never seen his horse in town. That animal was never put up at my stable, either,” Prescott noted.
“Ranger, where’d you say you shot this man?” Montrose questioned.
“A few miles outside of town. My horse was tired, so I decided to rest him a spell. I was lettin’ Trooper graze and gettin’ some shut-eye for myself when he came up on me.”
“You didn’t find any identification on him?”
“Nothing in his saddlebags that might indicate who he was? No letters, papers, anything like that?” Montrose insisted.
“Not a thing,” Pete replied. “Reckon he was just a driftin’ renegade. Once I get settled in, I’ll check my Fugitive List to see if he matches any descriptions in that.”
“The Ranger here’s gonna be the law in town until we appoint a new marshal,” Porter explained.
“Fine, fine. If anyone can track down those murderers, a Ranger can,” Montrose answered.
“Let’s cover this hombre for now. Soon as I can nail a few boards together for a coffin, we’ll bury him,” Porter said. He lifted a ring of keys from a peg over his desk and handed them to Pete.
“Ranger, here’s the keys to the marshal’s office.”
“Thanks,” Pete answered. “Reckon I’ll mosey over there and make myself comfortable. Mister Montrose, once I get some rest, I’d like to question you about the robbery.”
“Certainly,” Montrose agreed. “I’m at your disposal, Ranger.”
Once the body was covered, Pete and the others headed back outside.
“Trooper!” Pete exclaimed. “What are you doin’, horse?”
Trooper merely looked up from munching on a split open watermelon and nickered, then again buried his muzzle in the sweet fruit. The big bay had stretched his reins to the limit, in order to reach a display of watermelons on the boardwalk in front of Porter’s. He had knocked several from the display, and was happily chowing down. The outlaw’s gray was also working on a melon which had rolled within his reach.
“I’m sorry, Mister Porter,” Pete apologized. “I should’ve known not to tie my horse so close to those watermelons. He dotes on ’em. I’ll pay you for them.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Porter offered. “It’s worth losing a few melons to have a Ranger here. Your horse is welcome to them. Just don’t let him make a habit of stealin’ ’em.”
“I promise you that,” Pete said. He untied Trooper, while Hug Prescott took the gray’s reins.
“C’mon, Troop. Time you had a good feed and rubdown,” Pete told the gelding.
Pete left Trooper and the outlaw’s gray at Prescott’s Livery. Satisfied they would be well cared for, he took his saddlebags and Winchester, then headed for the marshal’s office
“This isn’t too bad,” the Ranger murmured, as he entered the office and shut the door behind him. While the room was coated with a layer of dust, it was otherwise in decent shape. Two cells were at the back of the office, and a bunk for the marshal was in a far corner, while a coffeepot sat on a stove opposite. Pete removed his gunbelt and hung it from a peg over the cot. He sat on the edge of the mattress, pulled off his boots, and slipped out of his shirt. Pete stretched out on the bunk. Within minutes, the exhausted Ranger was sleeping soundly.
While Pete slept the afternoon away, Ebenezer Montrose was busy. It wasn’t an hour after Pete had reached town when two men dressed in cowpuncher’s outfits arrived at the Rankin Bank, in answer to the banker’s summons. Montrose ushered them into his private office, shutting the door behind them.
“What’s the problem, Montrose?” Ben Reed asked. “You interrupted my visit with a very willing young lady. I don’t appreciate that.”
“Yeah, and I was in the midst of a winning streak,” Tom Pardee complained.
“Just sit down. We have a problem,” Montrose answered. “Light up if you want. This is going to take a while.”
Both men took seats. Montrose waited while they rolled and lit quirlies before continuing. He lit a cigar, poured a glass of whiskey for himself, and two for the others.
“All right. You saw the body that Ranger brought in this afternoon.”
“Yeah. So what?” Reed grunted.
“That dead man’s John Hunter.”
“Hunter? You mean the hombre who was supposed to retrieve the money we stole and bring it back for us to split?” Pardee demanded.
“The same,” Montrose confirmed.
“Did the Ranger mention findin’ any money on Hunter?” Reed asked.
“No, he didn’t,” Montrose answered. “He claims there was no identification on Hunter’s body, either. I don’t believe him.”
“You mean you think the Ranger is plannin’ on keeping that cash for himself?” Reed questioned.
“That’s a possibility. But I have a feelin’ he’s too honest to do that,” Montrose replied. “Besides, he most likely would have made a run for the border with that money by now if he intended to run off with it.”
“I dunno. Over forty thousand dollars is enough dinero to tempt any man,” Pardee disagreed.
“That’s true,” Montrose admitted. “But let’s assume he’s not keeping the money. That means either of two things. Either, as he claims, there wasn’t anything on Hunter to give us away. But more likely, that Ranger went through Hunter’s clothes and saddlebags. He found the directions to where the money is stashed, and is going to play things close to his vest. He’ll wait to see if anyone else goes after the cache.”
“For that matter, he might’ve killed Hunter right where the money’s hidden,” Reed speculated. “Mebbe he came up on Hunter diggin’ up the loot, surprised him, they shot it out, and Hunter came out on the short end. Now the Ranger’s just bidin’ his time until he can grab the money for himself.”
“Or will wait until someone goes for it, like Montrose says,” Pardee stated. “So what do we do now, Montrose?”
“We’ll wait a bit, perhaps a couple of days,” Montrose answered. “Then you’ll get Stanton, Lennox, and Jackson. You’ll go after that money.”
“What about the Ranger?” Pardee protested. “If you’re right, he’ll be watchin’ for someone to make a move.”
“I want him to follow you,” Montrose explained. “Once you reach the right spot, kill him.”
“Should be easy enough,” Pardee agreed.
“Don’t underestimate a Ranger,” Montrose warned.
“I wouldn’t, but this one’s hardly a Ranger,” Pardee sneered.
“Tom’s right,” Reed concurred. “We all heard that kid tell Porter he was the only man Austin could send. He’s still wet behind the ears. I think it’d be a good idea to find out just how tough he really is.”
“He killed Hunter, and Hunter was real good with a gun,” Montrose noted.
“Yeah, but the Ranger must’ve taken him by surprise,” Reed answered. “Let me try’n take him on here in town. Mebbe he’ll turn yellow and run, if he’s up against a real challenge. That’ll solve our problem”
“You can try if you want,” Montrose answered. “Just remember one thing. Don’t kill him, at least not in town. The last thing we’d need is more Rangers snoopin’ around because one of their own got killed. It’s better to wait until you’ve got that Ranger where no one will ever find his body.”
“We should keep an eye on him, just in case he does leave town real sudden-like,” Pardee advised. “He might just have left the money where it’s at until he can dig it up, once things have quieted down.”
“That’s a possibility I hadn’t considered,” the banker admitted.
“Don’t worry, Montrose. We’ll take care of the Ranger, one way or another,” Reed assured the banker.
“Good. Now, let’s figure out how to make sure he follows you when you ride out. Although, I doubt that will be much of a problem. If the Ranger found my letter in Hunter’s possession, he’ll be watching me real closely. Then both of you get out of here. I’ll get word to you when it’s time to make our move. And remember, don’t think of double-crossin’ me. You’ll regret it.”
Pete awoke just before sundown.
“Slept longer’n I planned,” he muttered. “Reckon I’ll have to wait ’til tomorrow to talk with that banker. ’Sides, my belly’s growlin’. Been too long since I’ve had a decent meal.”
He found a pitcher and basin on a shelf, and filled these from the pump out back. He washed up, pouring the water over his blonde hair, and letting it run down his chest and shoulders. That done, he redressed, and headed for the nearest café. There, he ate a meal of steak, boiled potatoes, and green beans, following up with a huge slab of dried-apple pie and several cups of strong black coffee. After supper, Pete spent the next two hours making the rounds of Rankin. He finished his first watch up at Jake Butler’s Red Rooster saloon, intending to take a break over a beer or two.
“Howdy, Ranger!” Butler boomed a greeting. “Step right up to the bar. What can I get for you?”
“Evenin’, Mister Butler,” Pete answered. “I’ll have a beer.”
“Comin’ right up, Ranger. And call me Jake.”
Butler filled a mug and placed it in front of Pete, who tossed a dime on the bar.
“That’s for a refill,” he said, then took a swallow of the brew, which, to his surprise, was chilled, unlike the warm beer served in most frontier barrooms.
“Good beer, Jake. It’s even cold.”
“That’s ’cause I keep the kegs in my cellar. I get ice in the winter, cover it with sawdust, and it lasts most of the summer,” Jake explained.
“Well, it sure tastes good,” Pete replied. He took another swallow.
“Now’s our chance,” Ben Reed hissed to his partner. “Let’s go.”
He and Tom Pardee left their place at the far end of the bar, and took up positions on either side of Pete. They didn’t waste any time in taunting the young lawman.
“You must’ve been real lucky, kid, to gun down that hombre,” Reed said.
“Might’ve been,” Pete shrugged, not rising to the bait.
“I’d bet he wasn’t lucky, Ben,” Pardee piped up. “Just sneaky. I’d hazard he drilled that jasper from ambush. A young’n’ll do that, tryin’ to make a reputation for himself.”
“Mebbe we should try and find out,” Reed answered. “What d’ya say, kid?”
“I wouldn’t try it,” Pete warned, his voice low and menacing.
“You gonna let this young pup order you around, Ben?” Pardee sneered.
“No wet behind the ears lawman’ll ever tell me what to do,” Reed replied. He grabbed for his gun.
Instantly, Pete’s hand slashed down and up, jerking his Colt from its holster. He jabbed the barrel deep into Reed’s gut. Reed doubled over, air whooshing from his lungs. Pete brought his pistol down in a streaking arc, slamming it into the base of Reed’s skull. The gunman collapsed, out cold.
Before Pardee could even react, Pete whirled and drove his knee into Pardee’s groin. With a howl of agony, Pardee went down to his knees. Pete clubbed his gun barrel onto the top of Pardee’s head. Pardee toppled to the sawdust-covered floor.
“Anyone else want to try anything?” Pete challenged, the gun in his hand and the glint in his blue eyes seeming to mark every man in that room for death.
Butler’s voice cut through the dead silence.
“I reckon not, Ranger.”
“Bueno.”, Pete said. “I figure a night in a cell will cool these two off. Couple of you help me carry ’em to the jail. Keep my beer waitin’, Jake. I’ll be back shortly.”
“Will do, Ranger,” Butler grinned. “Morrissey, Hughes, give the Ranger some help.”
Reed and Pardee were hauled to the jail and dumped unceremoniously into one of the cells. They were still lying on the floor, unconscious, when Pete finished his rounds, well after midnight.
Three days later, two hours past sundown, Pete followed Reed and Pardee, along with three others, Judd Stanton, Sam Lennox, and Mick Jackson, as they rode out of Rankin. He’d released the pair the morning after the incident in the Red Rooster. Instead of riding out of town, they had remained, hanging around the saloon and nursing their bruises. Then, last night, they had paid a visit to Ebenezer Montrose at his home. Now, they were heading out of town. Pete’s patience in keeping tabs on the banker could well be paying off.
“Easy, Trooper,” Pete cautioned the big bay. “If my hunch is right, we know where those hombres are headed. No need in chancin’ them spottin’ us. We’ll stay back a ways. Besides, if they do change direction, there’s enough of a moon we can follow their tracks.
Trooper had rested the past several days, and was eager to run. Pete held him to a slow trot. They had gone about five miles when Pete reined in. Even at this slow pace, the Morgan-Quarter cross’s steady gait was bringing them ever closer to the renegades.
“We’re still gainin’ on ’em, pal,” he told the big gelding. “You might as well take a breather. And I have a feelin’ we’ll be seein’ a bellyful of action before long.”
He dug his heels into Trooper’s ribs, putting the horse into a walk.
An hour later, they approached the pond where Pete had been accosted by John Hunter. Pete halted Trooper, then swung out of the saddle.
“Those hombres’ tracks are headed straight for the pond, like I figured, Troop,” he told his horse. “Reckon I might as well let them dig up that money, and save me the trouble. You wait here while I scout around a bit. I have a feelin’ one or two of those renegades’ll circle around and keep a watch for me. It’d sure simplify things for them if they could put a bullet in my back.”
Pete looped Trooper’s reins loosely around a mesquite. The bay could pull free and come at his rider’s whistle.
“You keep quiet,” Pete ordered his horse. “I’ll be back shortly.”
Trooper nuzzled Pete’s shoulder, then fell to munching on the mesquite pods. Pete slipped into the dark. A few moments later, he was overlooking the pond.
“Just where I figured they’d be,” he muttered. Three of the men were digging alongside a large boulder, while the fourth stood guard. A good-sized fire illuminated their work area.
“Don’t see the fifth hombre, though. Sure wish I knew where he’s at. I’d feel a heap more comfortable knowin’ he’s not linin’ his gunsights on my back.”
Pete lifted his Colt from its holster, and settled behind a fallen log, to watch and wait until the stolen money was unearthed.
It was half-an-hour later when Judd Stanton grunted in satisfaction.
He lifted several canvas sacks from the hole.
“We could just take this cash and head for Mexico,” Mike Jackson suggested
“I wouldn’t chance it,” Ben Reed advised. “Montrose has a long reach. He’d track us down for certain.”
“Sam’s right,” Tom Pardee agreed. “Let’s not get greedy. Our shares are still plenty.”
“Speaking of long reaches, I wonder what happened to the Ranger,” Stanton mentioned.
“Mebbe he didn’t find our tracks, or wasn’t clever enough to follow us after all,” Reed speculated. “Sam’s out there watchin’ for him, and I haven’t heard any gunshots. Let’s just get this money on our saddles and head back to town. With any luck we’ll run into the Ranger on our way.”
Pete’s voice cracked like a whip.
“You won’t have to look for me. I’m right here, Reed. All of you get your hands up.”
“It’s the Ranger!” Jackson exclaimed. He went for his gun. Pete dropped him with a bullet in the chest.
The others scattered, yanking guns from holsters. Pete’s next shot grazed Pardee, before the outlaw could dive out of the circle of firelight.
The outlaws fired blindly, unable to see Pete in the darkness. He had rolled to a new spot by the time they were able to locate his gun flashes.
A shot from behind him plunked into Pete’s lower ribs. He grunted from the impact, flopped onto his back, and returned fire. Another shot rang out, digging into the log. Pete aimed just to the left of the gun flash, and was rewarded with a yelp of agony. Sam Lennox, hands pressed to his middle, stumbled out of the dark and collapsed onto the fire. The acrid odors of singed fabric and flesh filled the air, while the clearing was plunged into darkness.
The three remaining outlaws had now determined Pete’s location. They concentrated their fire on the fallen log. Fighting the pain from the bullet in his back, Pete kept shifting positions. He aimed at another powder flash. His bullet hit Tom Pardee, who jackknifed and pitched to the dirt.
“I’m hit in the belly, Ben,” Pardee screamed. “Gimme a hand, will ya?”
“Hang on, Tom,” Reed called back. “Soon as we finish this Ranger, we’ll get to you.”
Reed’s next shot just missed Pete’s chest. Pete returned fire, but missed. He quickly reloaded.
Judd Sutton’s shot ricocheted off the boulder where Pete had taken cover. Pete screeched, fell, and lay groaning.
“I think I got him, Ben,” Sutton called.
“Be careful, Judd,” Reed warned.
“That Ranger sounds like he’s in bad shape. I’m gonna finish him,” Sutton answered. He crept closer to where Pete was stretched out against the boulder. Taking no chances, Sutton circled the rocks. He climbed onto the one sheltering Pete.
“Ranger. You hit bad?” he called.
“I’m… done for,” Pete gasped. “You got me… in my… guts. Hurts… somethin’ fierce. Reckon… you win.”
“Aw, gee. That’s a real shame, lawman.”
Sutton stuck his head over the boulder. Pete shot him between the eyes. Sutton plunged off the rock and thudded to the ground, alongside the Ranger.
“Judd?” Reed called. “Judd?”
“He’s dead,” Pete answered. “So are you, Reed, unless you throw down your gun, right now.”
“Not a chance, Ranger,” Reed screamed. He raced toward Pete, firing wildly. One bullet grazed Pete’s scalp, then Pete aimed carefully as Reed loomed above him. He fired twice, his first shot taking Reed in the stomach, the second in his left breast. Reed spun, then crashed face-down. Silence descended. The only sounds were Pete’s labored breathing, and the moaning of the badly wounded Pardee.
Pete reloaded his gun, and pushed himself to his feet. He staggered to where Pardee lay, hands clamped to his gut. Pete kicked Pardee’s gun out of reach.
“You gotta help me,” Pardee gasped.
“Soon as I check your pardners, I’ll see what I can do for you,” Pete promised. He checked the other men, making sure they were dead. That done, he whistled for Trooper. A moment later, the big bay trotted up to the Ranger and nuzzled his shoulder.
“Good boy, Troop,” Pete praised. He dug in his saddlebags for his medical kit and a clean cloth. Pete returned to Pardee.
“Lemme see what I can do for you,” he said.
“Dunno if you can do anythin’,” Pardee answered. “You gut-shot me, Ranger. Figure I’ve had it. At least takin a slug’s better’n hangin’.”
“Let me take a look.”
Pete opened Pardee’s shirt.
“You’re hit bad, all right,” he said. He placed the cloth over the bullet hole in Pardee’s middle.
“Be right back.” Pete pulled the shirt off Ben Reed, tore it into strips, then used those to tie the bandage in place.
“Best I can do for you until we reach town and I get you to the doc,” Pete noted.
“Ranger, all my pardners are dead, ain’t they?”
“They sure are.”
“Listen to me. I’m not gonna die and let Montrose get away with his scheme. That banker was behind the whole thing. It was his idea to have his own bank robbed, then after a few weeks, when things had quieted down, get the money back. He’d been embezzling from his customers for quite a spell. Needed some way to cover that up.”
“I know,” Pete answered. “I found his letter in Hunter’s saddlebags. Figured if I didn’t let on Montrose’d trip himself up.”
“You ruined everythin’ when you shot Hunter,” Pardee answered.
“We’d better get movin’. I’ll load up your pards, get you in the saddle, and we’ll head for town,” Pete said.
“I’m not goin’ anywhere,” Pardee replied.
The bullet in Pete’s back was out of his reach. It would have to remain where it was until he could get to a doctor. Fighting the pain and nausea which threatened to overcome him, he retrieved the outlaws’ horses, draped the dead men belly-down over their saddles, then got Pardee onto his horse. He tied the wounded man in place.
“Try’n hold on until we reach Rankin,” Pete told him.
“I’ll do my best,” Pardee answered, then slumped over his horse’s neck.
Pete rode hunched in the saddle until he reached town. Once there, he held himself upright. A crowd quickly gathered when he reined up in front of the marshal’s office. Hiram Porter was at the forefront.
“What happened, Ranger? These the jaspers who robbed the bank?” he questioned
“They are,” Pete confirmed.
“You got all of ’em?”
Before Pete could answer, Ebenezer Montrose joined Porter.
“You caught those outlaws? Good work, Ranger. Did you retrieve the stolen money?”
“I didn’t get all of ’em. Not quite yet,” Pete answered.
Tom Pardee roused himself.
“That’s right,” he gasped. “Montrose, I’m gonna make sure you go to Hell along with the rest of us. I’m sayin’ right here you planned the entire thing. You had your own bank robbed.”
“That’s preposterous,” Montrose snapped.
“No, it’s not.” Pete growled. “I found your letter in Hunter’s saddlebags. You’re under arrest for robbery and murder, Montrose.”
With an oath, the banker pulled a short-barreled revolver from inside his coat. Before he could shoot, Pete pulled his Colt from its holster and fired. His bullet struck Montrose in the heart. The banker took two stumbling steps, then crumpled.
“Reckon I’ll be seein’ Montrose and ol’ Satan in a few minutes,” Pardee muttered. He sagged over his horse’s side.
“What in the blue blazes happened here, Ranger?” Porter demanded.
“I’ll explain it all after I see the doc,” Pete answered. “I need to get a slug outta my back.”
With that, Pete slid off Trooper, and fell to the road. Once the bullet was removed, he would take several weeks to recover, before he returned to his duties as a Texas Ranger.